8 Amazing Facts About Albatrosses

These incredible seabirds deserve our attention—and our help.

white albatross with black-tipped wings flying over ocean
Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

An albatross is a large, magnificent seabird capable of soaring incredible distances without rest. Long viewed with superstitious awe by sailors, they spend most of their time gliding over the open ocean. Most people around the world rarely get a glimpse of these unique birds because even when they do visit dry land, it's often only to breed on remote islands before going back out to sea. Despite the distance they've managed to maintain from people, however, most albatross species are now threatened with extinction due to human activities.

In hopes of raising their profile and illustrating why we're lucky to share the planet with them, here are a few things you may not know about the amazing albatross.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Albatross
  • Scientific Name: Diomedeidae
  • Average Lifespan in the Wild: 30 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: 2 critically endangered, 7 endangered, 6 vulnerable, 6 near threatened, 1 of least concern
  • Current Population: Black-browed albatross: 1,400,000; Wandering albatross: 20,100; Tristan albatross: 3,400 to 4,800

1. One Albatross Has the Largest Wingspan of Any Living Bird

The Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), is a large seabird from the family Diomedeidae which has a circumpolar range in the Southern Ocean. The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the average wingspan being 3.1 metres
Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

The wingspan of a wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) measures up to 12 feet across, which makes it the largest extant bird on Earth in terms of wingspan. This helps the wandering albatross soar 500 miles in a day and maintain speeds of nearly 80 mph for eight hours straight without even having to flap its wings.

Part of the secret is locking elbow joints, which enable the bird to keep its wings extended for long periods at no energy cost from its muscles. Additionally, the birds have mastered dynamic soaring, which involves flying along a continually curving path in a way that extracts energy from the gradient of wind velocity, or wind shear. And because albatrosses inhabit areas of the world with reliably strong winds, dynamic soaring provides access to "an unlimited external energy source," one study said.

Engineers have long tried to mimic the albatross' impressive flying abilities with aircraft.

2. They Can Go Years Without Touching Land

Wandering albatross flies over roughs seas at Drakes Passage

Mike Hill / Getty Images

Once they fledge, albatrosses may spend a year or more at sea without setting foot on land, most of which is spent flying. Touching down in the water puts them at risk of shark attacks, so they touch down only briefly to feed. It's widely believed that albatrosses must be able to sleep while flying. Evidence of that behavior is still lacking, but it has been documented in the closely related frigate.

3. They Can Live and Raise Chicks Into Their 60s

Albatross with wings spread incubating an egg
Wisdom incubating her egg.

USFWS - Pacific Region / Flickr / Public Domain

All albatrosses are long-lived birds that can survive for many decades. Some live well beyond 50. The best-known example comes from a Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) named Wisdom, who was first banded by scientists in 1956 at Midway Atoll.

Wisdom continued returning to Midway for more than half a century, raising some three dozen chicks. In 2021, Wisdom turned 70 and was still breeding, making her one of the oldest known breeding birds.

4. They Mate for Life (With Some Wiggle Room)

Two albatrosses performing their courting dance
Layne Kennedy / Getty Images

Albatrosses mate for life. They form a long-term bond with one partner and are often said to have the lowest "divorce rate" of any bird; mated pairs virtually never split up until one dies.

These pair bonds don't necessarily adhere to the human definition of romance. Albatross pairs spend limited time together, meeting up only briefly at their breeding grounds until their egg is laid. Then, they take turns incubating the egg and foraging for food. Eventually, both birds must search for food to keep their growing chick fed.

Once their chick fledges after 165 days, the pair separates for the rest of the year, reuniting only when it's time to breed again. They are socially monogamous, which means they bond with a single partner but sometimes breed outside that relationship.

5. They Court Each Other With Elaborate Mating Dances

Laysan albatrosses performing a mating dance

Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

Because choosing a partner is such a momentous decision for albatrosses, they need a good system for identifying top candidates. They court each other with elaborate mating dances that develop over time and eventually become unique to each pair.

The wandering albatross has at least 22 distinct dance components. Their moves include head rolls, bill snaps, sky points, bowing, yammering, and yapping. The Laysan albatross' two dozen moves include whinnies, head flicks, bill claps, air snaps, stares, and sky calls. These components are combined into a sequence that's unique for each couple.

6. They Can Smell Food In the Water From 12 Miles Away

Albatross diving into the water for food
AGAMI stock / Getty Images

For more than 100 years, birds were believed to have little or no sense of smell—an idea put forth even by famed naturalist and bird artist John J. Audubon. Now we know that birds can not only smell but that scent seems to be a crucial part of the way many seabirds find their food.

Yet even for strong-nosed seabirds, following a scent trail on the open ocean isn't easy. Their food may send plenty of pungent clues downwind, but air turbulence at sea chops up the odor plume, creating spotty patches of scent that are hard to follow. According to a 2008 study, in which researchers fitted 19 wandering albatrosses with GPS sensors, the birds often approached food by flying upwind in a zigzag pattern, which seems to improve their chances of tracing an intermittent odor plume back to the source.

Sight is important, too, the researchers noted, but smell may contribute to as many as half of the albatross' in-flight food discoveries, which can be made from as far away as 12 miles.

7. Some Albatrosses Form Female-Female Pairs

albatross mother and chick on Oahu, Hawaii

dsischo / Getty Images

Female Laysan albatrosses sometimes pair with other females. This phenomenon is especially prevalent on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where the breeding colony is predominantly female and 31% of all mated pairs consist of two females. These female-female pairs raise chicks together after their eggs are fertilized by either unpaired males or via extra-pair copulation with already-paired males.

Female-female pairs fledge fewer chicks than female-male pairs do, but it is a better option evolutionarily than not breeding at all, researchers noted in a 2008 study. And since pairing with another female allows birds to reproduce who might not otherwise have had the opportunity, the behavior seems to be an adaptive response to local demographics.

8. They Are at Risk of Extinction

black-browed albatrosses along shoreline with chicks
Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

Of the 22 albatross species recognized by the IUCN, 15 are threatened with extinction, and nine species are listed as either endangered or critically endangered (including the wandering royal albatross and the Tristan albatross).

Many albatrosses are dying at sea, fatally ensnared by fishing lines and nets, but many are also dying as eggs and chicks at their breeding grounds due to the presence of invasive predators like cats and rats. Ocean plastic also poses a growing threat to albatrosses, with chicks sometimes fed a dangerous mix of plastic debris by their unwitting parents.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can albatrosses fly for years?

    While it's true that an albatross can go years without ever touching land, the birds do sometimes rest on the water. They generally avoid resting for too long in the water, though, because of the risk of sharks.

  • Are albatrosses related to seagulls?

    Although they look similar, and both are considered seabirds, albatrosses and seagulls are not related. The albatross is a member of the family Diomedeidae, the seagull belongs to Laridae. The former is a carnivore and the latter an omnivore. Albatrosses are also much bigger.

  • Where do albatrosses live?

    Albatrosses can be found in the Southern Ocean and North Pacific. They prefer Antarctic, sub-Antarctic, and subtropical waters. They primarily occur in the Southern Hemisphere with a few exceptions, such as Hawaii's population.

Save the Albatross

  • Make sure the seafood you buy is sustainable. Groups like the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch offer information making it easier to buy fish caught with bycatch-free and seabird-safe methods.
  • Because ocean plastic can originate from virtually anywhere, you can support albatross conservation simply by using less plastic and recycling whatever you do use.
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